Title: The Calculating Stars
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Genre/Themes: Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Alternative Timeline, Extinction Level Event, Equality, Feminism, Anxiety
Blurb from Goodreads
On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonise space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the programme, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
This is an utterly compelling read that uses an alternative history of earth following an extinction level event to compel the space programme to hasten humanity’s attempts to reach for the stars.
After a meteorite hits off the east coast of the USA in 1952 it causes a cataclysmic change to the global climate. The book follows the story of pilot and mathematician Elma York as she fights bureaucracy and sexism to become a so-called Lady Astronaut in humanity’s attempts to colonise outer space.
The story also highlights the privilege disparity between white and black women sharing this same goal of becoming an astronaut.
‘The Calculating Stars’ is an incredibly well researched novel which makes it feel incredibly realistic rather than far fetched science fiction. This extensive research also goes some way to make up for the frequently clunky narrative and heavy handed nature of the writing. If you are looking for a lyrical piece of science fiction writing then this is not the book for you.
Personally, I would have liked a little more nuance with regard to the relationship dynamics between Elma and her fellow female ‘computers’. In fact I think too much emphasis was placed on research instead of character development and therefore the book was somewhat lacking in true human emotion.
I also think that the male characters that were in positions of power, particularly Parker, were very much stereotypes and therefore never felt truly authentic to me. In attempting to show the disparity between the sexes the book lost sight of the fact that not everything in life is so ‘black or white’. I guess I like my characters to have more depth and would have loved to have truly understood the motivations of the male characters in particular as this would have made for a much more interesting character study. This was very much women versus men for too much of the plot.
In addition, I didn’t think that giving Elma severe anxiety problems was the most well thought out part of the plot as in this instance it sort of added to that steretyped notion of hysterical women. It also gave credence to the belief that Elma should have been barred from the space programme due to the mental stresses that astronauts experience due to the heightened pressures of being in space. And her hiding the condition showed her to be somewhat devious and less than trustworthy which are not exactly desirable traits to have in an astronaut whose job was of paramount importance to the survival of the human race. Again, these problems are due to such a heavy handed writing style.
However the relationship between Elma and her husband Nathaniel was very well crafted and provided a wonderful grounding point to the STEM storyline and gave the book its much needed soul.
Ultimately this book had many hits and misses but it did keep my attention and has made me want to seek out book two in the series.